December 11, 2008

The Woodsman

Let me paint a terrifying scene for my American readers: you are in the living room with your family--spouse, kids--and some extended family, such your mother and father, or perhaps your in-laws. It's winter and the stove is burning hot. The kids are jockeying for a place directly in front of the fire and your mother-in-law just turned up the TV again. The living room opens up into the kitchen and you make your way in there to start dinner. There's a dining table in between with six places set. Except for when you sleep, the family will spend all its time in this room. Only. All winter.

That scene is best pictured in black-and-white, which is always how infomercials depict life before their product. The product missing here is privacy, something we Americans cherish, even within the confines of our family. Or should I say especially within those confines. "Wouldn't you like to get away?" asked the theme song to Cheers. Americans relish the ability to get the hell away from everyone else from time to time, even if it's just to another room for some quiet reading. We like our space.

Well, electricity is laughably expensive in Macedonia when compared to average earnings (I think this is due to the fact that Macedonian produces very little of its own and imports most from neighboring countries) and homes are not heated with oil or natural gas. So the stove takes on enormous importance. In every house it sits like a mute family member in a place of strategic importance, such as near the TV. Sure, it lies dormant for seven or eight months of the year, but once it comes on it gets swarmed like a guy who just won the lottery. And there's typically only one in the house, though there may be a separate cooking stove as well. As the bedrooms go frozen (and I mean this nearly literally...we slept in a bedroom at our host family's last winter in which the temperature was 39), only the main room is heated. And so it's the center of family life for the winter season.

All of this means that wood takes on great importance this time of year. Throughout the fall two distinct sounds could be heard: the chopping of wood and the sawing of wood. The first is pretty standard, but the second bears description. I clearly remember the "wood guy" coming to our house in Maine during my childhood, dropping off a couple cords of cut wood and departing on his way. Sure, we had to stack all this wood and bring it in the house, but the hard work had been done. When someone orders wood here in Macedonia, what arrives is not so much "wood" as several felled trees, as if Gulliver did some weeding in Lilliput and sprinkled his find around the doorsteps all over town. Which brings me to Wood Cutting Guy.

Wood Cutting Guy is our neighbor. I'm not sure what his name is even though he's told me. He speaks in a dialect that can be (for us) very difficult to understand. WCG owns a table saw on wheels and I'd guess fall is a pretty lucrative time of year for him. We saw him everywhere in October with his ear-shattering saw, which I must note, includes absolutely zero safety measures. There's nothing between WCG and a blade spinning at 3500 rpm except the wood he's holding.

When he's not busy preserving his own life, WCG has been saving ours. See, we really needed wood and things were getting desperate. Not for the house, mind you, but for our adult English course. We hold this class, which so far has been a real success, in a rather large, unused room at the fire station. There's a stove in this room and we were assured by the town mayor that wood was not going to be a problem when the temperature turned cold. Well, old buddy, our students can see their breath during class, so where's the wood? Let me guess, you've got a bridge in Brooklyn you'd like to sell me as well.

Jillian and I realized we had to take matters into our hands and so we went on a pilgrimage to see Wood Cutting Guy at his wood-cutting shack. Not only was he willing to help us, but before we could ask when he was available, WCG was putting on some boots and a second coat. We were holding bags of groceries...did he mind if we put these down first? Of course not. Then the field trip began.

Considering I had had exactly one previous conversation with the guy prior to this encounter, we were blown away by the effort he put in for us. We walked around town for over an hour, at each stop waiting patiently outside while he talked with his wood "contacts." Though the first few stops would prove to be strike outs, we persevered until we were on an old stone path above the town. It felt very village-like and a light snow had begun to fall. There we came upon an older man and his wife. She was wearing traditional Macedonian clothing and stirred an enormous vat of pig fat in oil over an open flame. The pig had been killed earlier that day. Once it was decided that this was the place for wood, we celebrated with some fried fat cubes and rakia.

So this man had some wood and was willing to sell. But how to get it down the hill and into town? Turned out that WCG is also TWG, or Transportation of Wood Guy, and before long we were talking to some other neighbors and had soon procured a car and a hitch wagon. Jillian headed home and I climbed into the passenger seat alongside another of my neighbors. WCG was in the backseat and as the car began the steep climb up the hill a can of Skopsko beer serendipitously rolled out from under my seat. After a brief conference, WCG opened the beer and gulped.

"You want a beer?" the driver asked me. I looked back at the floor, wondering how many he stored under his seats.
"No, here." He pointed to the glove compartment. Really? I opened it and found nothing. When I informed him that the minibar was empty my driver looked rather embarrassed, like he was being a bad host. Thankfully we reached the house before things got too awkward.

And from there it happened pretty quick. We loaded up the wagon, brought it down the hill and on Tuesday our students had a fire at their backs as they talked about their families. "Bravo," they said. All the praise goes to Wood Cutting Guy, actually. After we had finished our mission and were back in the neighborhood, I gave him a big round of thanks before heading home. He just said, "It's nothing. If a neighbor needs help, I help." Fried pork fat and rakia at noon? That's very Macedonian. But what WCG did, that's also very Macedonian.

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